Waylon Johnson drives from his home in Mesa through the Superstition Mountains to get to his office strategically placed more than 100 feet under water.
As he makes his way around his office, some of which is above ground, he jokes that a built-in perk is the free leg training regimen as he goes up and down the stairs to monitor the safety and reliability of a facility that roughly 1 million Valley residents rely on – Mormon Flat Dam.
Johnson has worked “on the river” for close to two decades, sometimes living there full time and other times driving in from the East Valley as he does now, where he stays four days on and three off from his job as the supervisor of the Mormon Flat Dam, a hydro-electric plant that supplies power and water for Salt River Project customers.
“It’s a conscious decision to live out here and do what we do,” Johnson said. “But hydro gets in your blood.”
It’s been in Johnson’s blood since he started at SRP 17 years ago, beginning as an operations employee and making the rounds at SRP’s other dams on the Salt River – Theodore Roosevelt, Horse Mesa and Stuart Mountain. Combined, the four dams work together to maintain the water flow in the Salt River and four lakes, along with providing water to the Valley, after flowing through the Granite Reef Dam near Mesa.
“We work really closely with the recreation businesses on the river,” Johnson said.
Life on the river naturally attracts the outdoorsy types, Johnson said, adding that it’s not a job that’s for the faint of heart. The 20 or so employees who live and work at or near the Salt’s four-dam system do so at varying phases of their lives. Some have families and their children are homeschooled. Others are living on the river later in life, enjoying the solitude.
Constructed between 1923 and 1926, Mormon Flat Dam was the second of the dams constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation in conjunction with SRP on the Salt River. The concrete arch dam sits 224 feet high and forms a boundary on the river creating Canyon Lake, the smallest of the four man-made dams on the Salt.
Inside the dam, a 58-megawatt power generation turbine provides power to the grid that services the eastern part of the state. A megawatt equals 1 million watts. The turbine – which Johnson likened to a large “pool pump” in the water – can be turned on to pump the water back upstream to fill Saguaro Lake, preserving the water until it’s needed the next day. Prioritizing the use of surface water instead of groundwater is one of SRP’s goals with the dam system.
But long before Valley residents turn on the tap, SRP has assembled a team to closely monitor the flow of water throughout the state.
Precipitation in the Verde and Salt watersheds starts the process of delivering water to thousands of municipal water users in the Valley of the Sun. Six reservoirs – two on the Verde and four on the Salt – store the water that will eventually make its way through a series of canals to the Valley.
Charlie Ester, manager of surface water resources for SRP, said the company delivers water to 10 Valley cities, which then sell the water to their residents.
“The cities tell us how much water they need and we release the appropriate amounts,” Ester said. “In an ideal world, that means we would have no excess water.”
If the cities miss the mark and need to supplement, or if there hasn’t been enough rainfall in the watershed, SRP also has 270 wells that can pump groundwater and supplement water from the reservoirs.
Built a century ago, Roosevelt Dam is the nonprofit company’s flagship dam project. But the three other dams on the Salt, along with the two dams on the Verde River, combine to help keep taps running in the Valley. In the winter, for example, most of the water flowing to the Valley is from the Verde River and Bartlett Lake. In the summer, water is held in Bartlett for recreational purposes and water is moved through the Salt and its dam system.
Back at Mormon Flat, Johnson and his two operators rely on information from Phoenix regularly. They work closely with SRP’s team of scientists, hydrologists and meteorologists.
“We need to know very accurately how much water is in the lake and how much water we need to release and how much we have to generate power,” Johnson said.
Those decisions come from the main office in Phoenix, where cities will send an order for how much water their customers might need at any given time. Those numbers are fed to a computer where a generator in the Valley powers up and begins the flow of water through the dams and down to the canal system.
At the dam, scientists work with Johnson in other ways, including how to best help the native fish and wildlife, and how to prevent the spread of non-native aquatic pests such as the quagga mussel, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture says alters the food web by filtering water, removing plankton and clogging water pipes. An ultraviolet machine sends UV rays into the water, stopping the quagga from thriving on the dam or equipment.
Johnson said it’s an important balance to keep the dam flowing, supplying power and water to SRP customers, and working with other groups that have an interest in preserving life on the river.
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, and the Bureau of Reclamation,” Johnson said. “One of the best things about this job is the collaboration and meeting new people.”